Cobbing my cottage

Friday, 11 November 2011

Visiting My Dream

On Tuesday I returned from a short trip to Finland, where I dug up the soil in the forest next to my parents house in order to find out whether this whole project is viable or not. Not finding enough sand or clay in the ground would mean that the whole point of building ecologically and economically is lost - and my dream - well, it would remain just a dream... so it was important for me to test the soil, digging while all fingers and toes crossed - not very easy as you can imagine...

Digging test holes up to 80cm in depth

To begin with, I had a dream. A dream about where the hut will stand. So I marked it out roughly and started digging. My father was pretty certain that I would only find sand, this is because the house they built, in which I spent my childhood in, was built ten metres away on a sandy soil, even at 2-meter depth there was only sand, no clay. Which of course is a better scenario for building foundations on, because groundfrost doesn't really affect foundations in a sandy soil, the opposite of which is true for clay-heavy soil. Having read that the frost line in Southern Finland is at 1.5metres and not intending to dig my foundations that deep, I was relying on finding a sandy spot to build my dwelling on.

So enthusiastically, I start digging, and after lifting the dark topsoil aside, I discover this really lovely rust coloured sand beneath, just perfect for using in a cob mixture. So happy. My dad's watching me and saying, 'I told you, it's only sand there.' But I am determined to go deeper, just because. Yeah, I am a stubborn taurus too. And all goes well, until in about 50cm depth I hit something hard, and grey. And there I discover the other stubborn matter called clay, which is so incredibly packed and solid, that digging becomes impossible.

Clay - no go

Not good. My dad is surprised. So I move two metres up the gentle uphill and start making another hole. The same story repeats, except this time I find the clay in about 70cm depth. Another hole. Another hole. Another hole. Here I am inspecting one of them...

Looking for my gold (and eventually finding it)

After a few days of digging, the ground within 10-15 metre radius is full of several holes and I realise that the hut location (of my dream) wasn't quite as exact as I had thought. But eventually I do manage to find a spot which fills the criteria - lovely golden sharp sand and no thick clay at least up to 80cm depth - wahey!! We change the positions of the posts with my parents to roughly mark the outline of the area and I take a deep breath. There is one young fir tree in the way of my hut, but as I venture to the grocery shop, on my return dad is holding a warm chainsaw in his hands and the fir tree has fallen...

One issue is that there are many large tree stumps from last year's felling close to my marked area, the thick roots of which crisscross the soil deep within - all that has to be dug out with some form of machinery, as there is no way I can manually shift ancient silver birch stumps without breaking my back and losing faith in life and this project. But that's a worry for next summer - I have enough for now.

Then it's soil testing time. I dig soil samples out of the pits into glass jars and mix them with salt and water, shake vigorously and let set overnight, to see how much sand, clay and silt is in the ground. It is fairly quick to tell this by colour and texture alone - and even though the tests show varying amounts of clay and sand, none of the samples would make good cob on its own, so I realise that I will have to make some experiments. Getting hands dirty time..

Lower down my parent's plot, I find a really wet, swampy bit and start digging. The exposed muddy clay is making moist kissing sounds as I dig, which is funny but doesn't make the digging easier. My mum has an idea of making a natural pond out of my future clay hole and I think that sounds fantastic. Anyway, I eventually find a really lovely clean clay few metres away and slight excitement fills my heart.

Now I have: a) lovely, rusty coloured sand  b)sticky, grey clay in abundance c) some oat straw
 - and that's all I need for making cob! 

Getting a big tarp out, I make a mixture of about 1 part clay to 3 parts of sand and mix it altogether using my feet power, turning the mix inside the tarp fairly often for even consistency. I just love the colour of this mixture and it feels almost magical to be mixing something so basic to make something so fantastically interesting! I am again in love but hey, loving nature is easy, particularly as it doesn't argue with you!

Mixing cob (sand and clay)
Adding straw
Doing the cob dance

I add some straw my mother had bought few weeks previously and jump on the mixture, digging my heels in, getting all my frustration out, dancing to a silent tune inside my head, thinking about doing this over and over again for two months and the slowly descending madness that follows.... it is truly a lovely, warm feeling!

As I do my silly moves and look totally ridiculous, even my 8-year old niece warms up to the cob, gets wellies out and jumps on the pile (she had initially looked at me very disapprovingly), so we do a little jig on the mix and she has a chance to get her hands and feet dirty. I keep turning the cob mixture around with the help of the tarp, which is the best way to do it when one is working alone, and finally, I can see it - the perfect mix. I grab some of the stuff, form it into a ball and throw it on the ground. The ball flattens a bit due to the mix being slightly too wet but doesn't break. Me thinks that's purfect!

I shift all the mixture into a wheelbarrow and I suggest to my niece that we make a little sculpture with it, since it doesn't keep (due to the straw being in it). In any case, I might as well experiment how easy it is to build with this and perhaps even how well it survives over the harsh Finnish winter - the ultimate test of fire (or ice rather)! My little animal lover niece says I should make a cat and I agree. I start building the cat on top of a tree stump but quickly realise that the cat is taking the shape of a bear. Well, considering my niece doesn't mind and bear being the national animal of Finland, I let the hands do their work and the result - a hybrid of a mole, cat and a baby bear... Good fifteen minute effort though, playing with the cob, and of course I was over the moon about how easy it was to build and sculpt with the mixture. Now it's up to the nature to take care of the rest...

My animal cob sculpture

After these busy five days, I sigh of relief - I now know that the project is possible, as far as cob is concerned! THE JOY!